Why Is My Child's School Peanut-Free or Nut-Free?

Peanut Butter
Peanut Butter. Scott Olson / Staff / Getty Images

Question: Why is my child's school peanut-free or nut-free? And because it is peanut-free or nut-free, what foods can she bring?

Answer: Schools ban peanuts or tree nuts when there are severely allergic children enrolled because those allergic children can react even to tiny traces of peanut or nut dust in the air, or to peanut or nut residue on a lunch table. In the worst-case scenario, these reactions can be life-threatening.

Unfortunately, peanut and tree nut allergies aren't like other allergies. Most people with food allergies — even severe allergies — can manage their allergies by simply not eating foods that contain those allergens. They read labels, don't eat food if they don't trust the food, and they ask questions about potential cross-contamination.

People with peanut and tree nut allergies follow all these steps too. However, they need to take additional precautions, because it's possible for them to react to traces of nut dust in the air (from peanut shells, for example).

In addition, nuts and peanuts are full of natural oils that leave residues. While these residues can be removed with common household cleaners, it can be difficult or impossible to clean tables in the middle of lunch, for example, or for school cleaning staff to know to clean oils off of tainted walls or doorknobs during the school day.

Because of these issues, and because peanut and tree nut allergies can be life-threatening, many schools have responded by designating peanut- or nut-free lunch tables or classrooms, or even by declaring the entire campus peanut- or nut-free.

Packing Safe Snacks

Parents of kids with these allergies learn to read food labels to make sure they're safe, but for parents who are new to packing lunches or snacks for a peanut- or nut-free classroom, the learning curve can be steep.

Manufacturers in the United States are not required to list the presence of allergenic ingredients on their manufacturing lines, which makes the task even more challenging.

Here are some rules of thumb for reading labels:

  • Under federal law, peanuts and tree nuts have to be clearly identified in a food label if they're used as an ingredient. Look for the word "peanuts" or a particular type of tree nut — macadamia nuts, brazil nuts, cashews, almonds, walnuts, pecans, pistachios, chestnuts, beechnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts (pignoli or pinon), gingko nuts or hickory nuts — in the list of ingredients, or following the word "Contains."
  • Foods that pose a possibility of manufacturing cross-contamination — that is, where peanuts or nuts were processed on one line and then another peanut- nut-free food was made on the same line, where it could potentially have been contaminated with nuts — are not allowed in peanut- or nut-free classrooms. Look for warnings like "may include traces of peanuts" or "manufactured on a shared line with tree nuts." Package notices to the effect of "made in a nut-free facility" indicate safe snacks. Many products, however, include no warnings at all. If you want to pack such a food for your child, check your school's list of recommended snacks (if available), or call the manufacturer.
  • Be aware that manufacturing formulations and practices sometimes vary. Even if you've bought a snack before, take a quick look at the label each time you buy it to make sure the ingredients or cross-contamination warnings haven't changed.
  • Make sure you follow school directions. Some will require that you send snacks in individual packages; others may allow you to divide larger packages of approved foods into smaller servings.

Snacks to Consider Bringing

So what kinds of foods are good to bring to a peanut- or nut-free classroom? Here are some ideas.

I haven't recommended specific brands of snacks, with the exception of one dedicated nut-free company (see below), because ingredients and manufacturing practices can and do change without notice.

Your school may provide a list of acceptable snacks, though, and one good source for current information will be the parent of the classmate with the nut allergy. Always check labels on packaged foods.

Here are the snacks I can recommend:

  • Fresh fruit. Bananas are popular year-round, apples and pears are great in the fall, and clementines are easy to peel and available through the winter. There are obviously plenty of other choices.
  • Cheese. Most cheese is nut-free, including kid-friendly string cheese and convenient cheese cubes. Always check the label to be certain the product is safe, though.
  • Vegetables. Baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, and cauliflower are among the vegetables some kids will eat raw. Small containers of plain yogurt, salad dressing, or sour cream may be good dips.
  • Raisins and other dried fruits. You may be able to find these in kid-sized packages, but always check the label or contact the manufacturer to be certain they're processed safely.
  • Pudding cups.
  • Air-popped popcorn. Be aware that some popcorn is popped with unsafe oils.
  • Applesauce. The healthiest and most convenient type is unsweetened applesauce in single-serving cups.
  • Fruit snacks.
  • Potato, tortilla and multigrain chips. Be certain to check the labels to make sure the manufacturer doesn't use unsafe oils, and to be certain there's no risk of cross-contamination.
  • Lunch meat and sandwich bread.
  • Juice, water, soda, and most other beverages.
  • Some cookies, snack cakes, and crackers. These types of snacks are much more likely to contain nuts or to pose cross-contamination risks than other items on this list, so either check labels very carefully or consider buying these items from a nut-free manufacturer such as Enjoy Life Foods (available nationally).

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